Getting Going in Gansu

Dog-shaped Doorhandles, Lanzhou

Doggy Doorknobs, Lanzhou © Jo James

I was prepared to dislike Tianshui when I arrived here a few hours ago. This was due to a few reasons, none of them very good (the bus broke down, it’s been raining since I arrived, I was hungry). After a big dinner, I feel immeasurably better, both about Tianshui and life in general. Dinner is almost always the answer – that or sleep…

The last few days have been fascinating, but tiring – there’s apparently a lot of foot work involved in writing guidebooks. It’s a treasure hunt on a grand scale, but my ‘treasure’ is places worth sharing – an amazing coffee shop (I had my doubts, but it seems that Illy has marketed its way to Lanzhou), a tucked-away temple, or a delicious new dish.

Taoist Priest, Lanzhou

Taoist Priest, Lanzhou © Jo James

Those things will all make it into the book, but the most interesting stories from my journey – the ones from the people met en route – will have to be left out. For, after a nervous start to this long, potentially lonesome trip, I’ve rediscovered the best thing about going solo – talking to strangers.

It started in my hotel on Monday night, when a tall, elderly gentleman in a white skullcap gave me two thumbs up as we were waiting for the lift. He was a Salar from Qinghai province – descended from the Mongolian soldiers left behind by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. While I was intrigued to learn more about Salar culture, and he in turn to learn about how English girls get so tall, there’s only so much you can learn by the fifth floor. But it was a positive start.

Then yesterday I met Ibrahim, who called out to me in a wonderful, clipped English accent from inside a bakery, “You look lost! May I help you?” He gave me a breathless introduction to his life (he’s 42, back in Lanzhou to look after his elderly parents, studied English at Peking University and wishes he had more cause to use the language), accompanied me down the street and forced two cakes on me before we parted ways. I had the uncomfortable sensation while speaking to him that I was talking to someone whose English was more correct than mine.

And then I met a group of Taoist priests, who I enjoyed a completely incomprehensible chat with. I still need time to get used to strong Gansu accents, and was basically guessing at what they were saying, which made us all laugh – them harder than I.

Cheered and encouraged by these encounters, by the time I boarded my train out of Lanzhou last night, my nerves had disappeared. Now, if only the rain would stop…

P.S. You see the map on the right? I’ll be trying to map my stops as I travel – when I can find an internet connection good enough to deal with Google maps that is 🙂

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